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Saturday, June 19, 2021

When TN Seshan threw a tantrum

As the episode of former West Bengal chief secretary Alapan Bandyopadhyay’s transfer unfolded, remembering another VIP ‘explosion’ and the lessons it taught.

Written by Nalini Singh |
Updated: June 9, 2021 9:02:16 am
Former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan addresses a gathering. (Express Archive)

Has the former Chief Secretary of West Bengal, Alapan Bandyopadhyay, dodged a bullet, or is the bullet en route? Ever since the cyclone Yaas was weaponised in a series of meetings and non-meetings in Kalaikunda, questions have been swirling in the ecosystem. Did the prime minister instigate the chief secretary’s transfer to Delhi in a fit of fury at Mamata Banerjee’s defiance? How does the PM now feel about the nightly twists on TV debates and comments by newspaper columnists at the bureaucrat’s imperious transfer to Delhi on his retirement day?

We don’t have the answers yet, but “fury” has subverted our democratic polity astonishingly often, almost as if feudalism is our default setting, and that the janata must accept the supreme leader’s shock meltdowns and pay a temper-tax wordlessly. Allow me to recall one such VIP “explosion” and its striking lessons that appear apt today.

That morning in February 1996, I borrowed my brother’s Fiat car to look posh driving into Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan’s New Delhi bungalow at 6.15 am. As I arrived at his home, the CEC advised, “Leave your car here, sit with us and discuss.” We headed to the airport in his official Ambassador, the cold breeze whipping the sarkari nylon curtains. I had found out that we were both going to Lucknow that day, and when his office gave me a 6.15 am appointment, I advanced my flight.

I had 18 minutes before we reached the airport, so I had to make my request immediately: Our TV team needed Seshan’s approval for broadcasting India’s first exit poll for the 1996 Lok Sabha elections on Doordarshan (DD), then the country’s only TV channel, at exactly 5.01 pm, a minute after the end of polls on May 7, 1996.

The DD top brass declined to give permission until Seshan approved the telecast. Hence, the meeting in the car that morning. He asked me forensic questions and cross-questions on the data’s authenticity and the formula for statistical extrapolation. As the car turned into Palam airport, Seshan said, “Send me a letter”. This was bureaucratese for “not rejected”, and I rejoiced that my Lucknow trip had succeeded before take-off.

The 4 pm programme in Lucknow had been organised by a reputed group of local gentry to confer “outstanding achievement” awards on Seshan, Khushwant Singhji, Dr Naresh Trehan and me from Delhi. Lucknow’s administrative, business, professional and trading elite dawdled in at leisure, both women and men dressed formally, beaming with an innocence that contrasted with Delhi’s sharp, side-glancing elite. They greeted each other gushingly, each grasping both hands of the other distinguished luminary.

Seshan took his place on the raised stage at exactly 4.30 pm, along with Khushwant Singh and one local organiser. Seated on sofas opposite the stage, the lack of conversation on the near-empty stage made me uneasy, especially as the watch showed 5 pm. About 15 minutes later, the mic was tested, and then the first of five speakers took to the rostrum, showering Seshan and others with flowery praise embellished with Urdu shairi and Hindi kavita paath.

It was a classic provincial evening, and except for Seshan’s darkening brow, I was enraptured by the slower pace of life, as all the speakers said the same things in varying forms. At about 6 pm, the last speaker finally announced, “ And now our most highly distinguished India’s Chief Election Commissioner, Hon’ble Shri TN Seshan ji, will give his address”.

Seshan sprang from his seat, walked purposefully to the rostrum, ensured that the mic was placed at the right distance and angle from his face, and spat out the following: “I am told that I will now give my address. My address is 4B, Pandara Road, New Delhi 110003.” With these words, Seshan, now red with anger at the endless slippage in the programme, declined to accept the Ganesh statue that one baffled organiser tried to hand to him, and stomped off the stage with quick, deliberate steps.

“What’s this?” I turned to Trehan who sat next to me. “He’s had a mood swing, he lost control.” And just as I tried to stifle a laugh at this instant diagnosis, Seshan met my eye as he bounded off to the exit.

There was a momentary murmur in the audience, but then two quick life lessons followed. First, Khushwant Singh stood up from his chair and picking up the abandoned Ganesh said that it was a pity to leave it behind, and asked gleefully if he could have it (he took it). Second, the programme resumed at its unhurried pace, much as ripples wink and subside after a stone is thrown in the water. The hot lava of Seshan’s temper deterred nobody from enjoying the evening or the Lakhnawi hospitality that followed at dinner. But a third life lesson awaited me.

Since we were all booked on the return night flight, we rushed to the airport after dinner. Khushwant Singh and Trehan had seats next to each other, and, scarily, I was allotted the VIP seat next to Seshan. “So how was it? What did they say? What happened?” he asked, but in a surprisingly regretful and diminished tone. I began diplomatically, “Sir, they would have liked to hear you… this is a small town, and they didn’t follow the time protocol, but I don’t think they meant any offence. And you missed a friendly dinner.”

Seshan was quiet and reflective, “You’re telling me that life carries on regardless, irrespective… I’ll remember that”. I don’t know if he remembered that, but when the saga of Alapan Bandyopadhyay’s peremptory transfer exploded, the life lessons from 25 years ago came surging again. One, that when the powerful oppress subordinates in a way that erodes the latter’s dignity, power soon flows to the oppressed. Two, that the public does not learn a permanent lesson delivered with brute force. And three, life carries on regardless.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 9, 2021 under the title ‘When Seshan stormed out’. The writer is a senior journalist

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